Cano, Pedroia making second first-rate

Cano, Pedroia making second first-rate

Many could argue that the top second baseman in the American League will be taking the field this weekend at Fenway Park, helping to lead his team at the plate and contributing sharp defense in the field behind the pitching staff.

Yet that player's identity remains up for further debate. One thing is for sure: with Robinson Cano of the Yankees and Dustin Pedroia of the Red Sox, the New York-Boston tilt once again features a pair of the best the game has to offer.

Through the early portion of the season, Cano has stepped up as one of baseball's most productive players, helping to carry the Yankees while Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez have battled to get their offense into overdrive.

The 27-year-old Cano will walk through the players' entrance at Fenway carrying a blistering .362 batting average, in contention for the big league lead, along with nine homers and 21 RBIs -- numbers that helped the sweet-swinging lefty earn honors as the AL's Player of the Month for April.

"It feels good, not because I'm having a great season, but you want the team to win," Cano said. "I'm getting on base for my teammates, so what matters here is just winning games. It's a lot of hard work. I come here with the same mentality -- work hard."

The hot start has allowed Cano to let out a few sighs of relief. Heading into the season, one of the Yankees' spring topics revolved around if Cano would be able to protect cleanup hitter Rodriguez in the lineup. The discussion seems to have been a waste of words.

"We talked about his ability to hit in the No. 5 slot, and for me, he's done extremely well," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "He's been patient, he's had big hits. He's hit right-handers, he's hit left-handers, he's hit more homers off of left-handers [six]. So I think he's done a very, very good job."

Not that the transition came immediately. Cano would later speak about sweating the details of his move in the lineup, and Girardi said that Cano had to be pinned down by A-Rod and hitting coach Kevin Long to reinforce the fundamentals after chasing too many pitches in a Grapefruit League game.

Bad news for AL pitchers -- Long said that Cano has "eliminated a lot of holes" at the plate to make himself more dangerous, improving his eye and pitch selection. Cano's three walks on April 20 at Oakland were regarded as a breakthrough.

"That's something I've been working on," Cano said. "I'm not swinging at bad pitches or chasing. If they want to walk me, I've just got to get on base for my teammates."

When Cano's not stealing a page from Nick Johnson's OBP manual, his bat has provided for a running joke, as players tease Cano about his hard outs. The hits sound like shotgun blasts; after Cano homered during a series in Baltimore last month, Orioles catcher Matt Wieters looked up at the next hitter and said, "We've got to check that bat."

"I was like, 'It's been that way since Spring Training,'" Marcus Thames said. "Even in BP, it's the same. He's making good, hard solid contact, and he's having a lot of success right now. All I could do was laugh."

Reggie Jackson, now a special advisor for the Yankees, recently told the New York Post that he believes Cano has surpassed Pedroia as the AL's premier second baseman.

The newspaper then contacted six scouts and posed the same question; three favored Cano, another said it was close and went with Cano, one picked Pedroia but said Cano was the better hitter, and the final scout said Cano had better skills but Pedroia's all-out effort made it a push.

Not that Pedroia spends much time reading out-of-town clippings, but the 26-year-old has made a living out of making those who underestimate him look silly.

Already having been named a Rookie of the Year (2007) and a Most Valuable Player ('08), Pedroia is generously listed at 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, but he's more like 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds. And he has always played with a chip on his shoulder.

"Obviously I'm motivated," Pedroia said. "I'm not the biggest guy in the world. I don't have that many tools. If you look at me and I'm walking down the street, you obviously wouldn't think I'm a baseball player.

"I think that's the biggest thing that drives me to be a good player. I've had to deal with that my whole life. I think that's just been instilled in my mind -- that I have to overcome everything to prove people wrong. So far I've done that."

Also being asked to tackle extra responsibility this year by his team, Pedroia's bat has been one of the more productive chunks of lumber taking up residence in the Boston dugout, but his glove has garnered its fair share of the spotlight as well.

In a game against the Angels this week, Pedroia saved the day with a heads-up double play that bailed starter Jon Lester out of an eight-inning jam and helped to preserve a victory.

"Just to see the way he goes about his business and the desire he has to play the game is amazing," said Red Sox catcher Victor Martinez. "You know what it shows everybody? That height or weight or whatever, it doesn't mean anything about how you play this game. You just need to the fire and the desire to play the game like he does."

Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell said that Pedroia must have "played in the sandpit a lot when he was a kid, because he always likes to be dirty," and while that is a compliment to his all-out style, the statement probably would never be attributed to Cano.

Therein lies a large difference between the two players; while the ferocious Pedroia embraces his lunch-pail mentality, Cano has drawn fire over the years for appearing lackadaisical on the field -- Girardi even benched him late in 2008 for a perceived lack of hustle, a kick in the rear that Cano believes he needed.

"The good thing was that I always had my dad," said Cano, whose father, Jose, pitched for the Astros in 1989. "He spoke to me and said, 'Just remember that the game is not always going to be the same.' That's why they call it the big leagues. You're going to have bad years and good years. Just learn from the mistakes."

Girardi is now a card-carrying member of Cano's fan club, believing that Cano takes the field with a certain grace and smoothness that makes the difficult appear routine. Take Cano's emerging trademark defensive play, for example.

Cano belted two homers to beat the Orioles on April 29, but the postgame clubhouse was still buzzing about Cano's range up the middle in the third inning, whipping the throw across his body behind the second base bag to steal a hit from Nolan Reimold.

"He works extremely hard and everyone knows how much arm strength he has," said shortstop Derek Jeter, who was captured by television cameras laughing after the out. "There's not too many second basemen who can make that play, because it's a long throw and he works on it.

"He's in one of those zones right now that every player wants to be in. It seems like everything he's doing right now is perfect. He's playing as well as I've ever seen him."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.